FORT SMITH — City leaders are considering building a $31.2 million indoor sports facility in Fort Smith, which is expected to have an annual economic impact of $42.4 million through direct and indirect costs, according to Conventions Sports and Leisure International.
On Tuesday evening, directors heard a feasibility study from Conventions Sports and Leisure International that discussed market demand, comparable properties in similar cities, industry trends and business models. The study cost $30,000, which was paid through a matching grant of $15,000 from Arkansas Tourism, $7,500 from the city’s Advertising and Promotion Commission and Convention and Visitors Bureau, and $7,500 from the city.
The CSL presentation states that the indoor sports facility will meet the city’s opportunities and needs for sports tourism or weekend tournaments, as well as enhance opportunities for local sports and recreation during the week. They measured interest through interviews with stakeholders and potential user groups and found that demand for the indoor sports facility ranged from moderately strong to strong.
“Market research and analysis indicates that the state of the industry’s indoor sports facility suitable for basketball, volleyball, wrestling, pickleball, dance, cheerleading, martial arts, futsal and off-season/extra training for various field sports and related tournaments, games, training and learning activities can meet certain local and non-local market demand that is currently not being met by existing facilities in the local and regional market,” the presentation package says. “In particular, volleyball, basketball, wrestling and football appear to be some of the most well-known sports that will represent the main use of the new indoor sports facility at Fort Smith.”
CSL studies have shown that an indoor sports facility can serve over 225,000 people within a 30-minute drive and 5.9 million people within a three-hour drive; and unlike outdoor sports facilities such as baseball or football complexes, an indoor playground can be used year-round and can be used for a range of sports.
CSL recommends building a 120,000-square-foot facility with eight full-size basketball courts or 16 full-size volleyball courts and synthetic turf for one standard size field. They also proposed a minimum ceiling height of 35 feet so that the nets could be lowered onto individual courts and turf, or also used for ball cages, locker rooms and team rooms, fitness and wellness facilities, walking paths, playgrounds, food court, grounds for live performances and esports, as well as 900 parking spaces, all on at least 10 acres of land.
“Other types of projects may, in certain cases, be combined with these types of projects,” said CSL director Bill Krueger. “Often they are staged in the sense that you either build an indoor court first and then place it along with some sort of high quality field facility where you have multiple tournament quality fields. So you have a sport that many communities are investing a lot of money in in exchange for the benefit to the locals, but most importantly, the economic impact.”
Krueger said the facility will be different from hosting tournaments at the Fort Smith Convention Center because the center is expensive to set up and take down, requiring time not associated with conventions, conferences or trade shows. He said similar indoor sports facilities are the TBK Bank Sportsplex in Bettendorf, Iowa; Cape Girardeau Sportsplex in Cape Girardeau, Missouri; and Fieldhouse USA Frisco in Frisco, Texas, which can generate between $200,000 and $500,000 a year in profits, depending on the market and what sports are used.
Krueger said that CSL did not conduct a specific analysis of the site, but suggested that sites for the facility are near the football complex and the U.S. Marshal Museum along the Arkansas River, Ben Guerin Regional Park, and Chaffee Junction. He said that if the city wants to move forward with the project, the next steps will be to explore site options and funding sources.
Ward 3 director Lavon Morton asked how comparable cities pay for their indoor sports facilities.
Krueger said they paid either through a general obligation bond backed by a loan or with a property tax; income bonds from the hospitality, visitor industry, hotels, sales, entertainment, or taxes on food and beverages; or the city’s annual capital budget.
“We don’t really see a private operator coming in with money, cash in hand, to help with capital accumulation,” he said.
At-Large Director Kevin Settle suggested that city administrators talk to comparable cities and find out how they fund the project. He also invited the city to meet with the Boys and Girls Club, the Fort Smith School District, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and local sports leagues to see if they were interested in using the facility and helping pay.
Morton said he thinks it could help generate income, but he is concerned about building costs and is asking residents to raise the tax after they just updated the city’s 1% sales tax last month.
Krueger said the city could also apply for land acquisition or facility management to see if there is private sector interest in the project.
“Companies involved in sports facilities, for example, are often connected after our feasibility study,” he said. “If you go down the road, they can help you with certain funding, set up a more detailed look at programming and building costs and things like that as it leads to a project that you can get started with. So these are just some of the aspects that we tend to look at in terms of next steps. And we’d be happy to share our two cents along the way if you’re ultimately interested in discussing the next steps in more detail.”
Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, said there was a “huge void” in this part of the country for this type of property.
“So if Fort Smith doesn’t do it, someone else will,” he said. “Little Rock has been on the ballot several times to try and inspect the premises, whether indoors, outdoors, or both. economic development that tourism can bring and help our existing businesses here.”